When you think of technical death metal, it's hard not to give credit to pioneers Atheist, who blazed a trail of of extreme metal, jazz-fusion, thrash, and prog back in the early 90's. Though they only released a few albums, each proved to be quite influential to many of today metal acts, and fans have long been screaming for a reunion. Well, a few years ago those wishes came true, as band leader Kelly Shaefer has resurrected this lean, mean, technical metal machine once again, and unleashed a hot new album, Jupiter, on the metal masses. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo recently caught up with Kelly to talk about Atheist's legacy, the reunion, and the red-hot new CD!
SoT: Please take us back to 1993, to the release of Elements and the subsequent break-up of the band. What prompted the band to split then, just when the creative juices seemed to be flying so high?
Kelly: I think a part of it was, just tired of being sort of misplaced, and lost from a stylistic side. And on the last tour we did in europe, Rand and I were fighting constantly.We had a headlining tour in Europe planned with Wargasm, and upon returning home from the Benediction tour, Rand decided to wait till 2 days prior to hitting europe to say he was not doing the tour, so the promoter lost ticket and promotion money etc... not cool so..that was it! That's not fun, so I ventured headfirst into Neurotica.
SoT: Fast forward to 2006, and the reunion shows. Can you talk about what prompted you getting the band back together, and how those shows went?
Kelly: It initially came as a re-issue situation, and that led to shows, and clearly this is a different time, with a ripe forest of people who love well played, interesting metal..as well as Atheist..and after 4 years of shows, we thought to just get in a room and see what happens, and we did, and it was still magic..it still moved us, and we decided to dig in, and take our time, just fun, no pressure, and it came out way better than we could have hoped after such a hiatus.
SoT: Can you tell us who is currently in the band? I know some folks have already come and gone since the 2006 reunion.
Kelly: No, just Jonathan joining us after the departure of Gnostic guitar player Sonny Carson.. and then I guess recently with Tony. We have an amazing young talented guitar player named Jonathan Thompson, his style is very similar in nature to Roger's and we love that about him, he is very quiet and subdued, but speaks loudly with his guitar. And then we have Mr Chris Baker..the peoples champ (laughs) he is a blast to write with. We actually have a great deal of fun, and that was not always the case in the early 90's
SoT: What about Tony Choy? He was part of the initial reunion line-up, but currently listed as no longer with the band.
Kelly: Just talked through email with Tony today...it's something that happens you know? We are like brothers and so while we both had gripes about the way it went down..we work through that shit, and remain great friends. We have a lot of respect for each other, and those press releases were really taken the wrong way..but, again these things happen, and who knows how it will play out, but I would not rule tony out to hit the stage with us again.
SoT: It's been documented that during your years with Neurotica you developed tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, and you currently are not playing guitar with Atheist. How is your condition today?
Kelly: I still play guitar everyday, and wrote a lot of riffs on Jupiter. It's a bit of an inflated tale at this point. I do have CTS in my right hand, and in a live situation, my hand falls asleep if I stand while playing. If sitting I can play for hours. So naturally I am not going to sit down during an Atheist performance, SO that became a new dynamic for Atheist in terms of how we present this madness in a live setting. Me not being stuck to a mic stand brings a portal to the front of the stage to connect with people. We want it to be a visual ride as well as a sonic one.It has proved to be a quality decision in my opinion in terms of the Live performance of this music
SoT: Jupiter is soon going to be unleased on the extreme metal world. Can you describe the songwriting process for the new album, and how easy or hard it was to get back into 'Atheist' mode after all these years?
Kelly: For me it took me about 8 months to get my chops up to the point I could start recording riffs. It was truly almost exactly as we had done back in the day, except the available technology enabling me to send riffs through the mail, and then fly into atlanta to hash out the arrangements with the band, and on some songs we just sat and got our minds right, and wrote songs like Fictitious Glide basically in one sitting. It's important for us to capture moments, we collect moments of music, and sew them together according to the way we feel we want to play it. and hear it. Our ears are the Jury and they tell us if it's going to be in the song.
SoT: It's amazing, listening to the new album, just how much Atheist has influenced death metal over the years. So many bands have taken the Atheist blueprint over the last 15 years and rolled it into their own styles. How do you see the bands impact on the technical death metal scene?
Kelly: Well thank you for that..we feel..well amazed. It had never crossed our minds that this would grow into what it did, without even the band being together for 15 years. It's a true "Tortoise the Titan" story in terms of our evolution as a band..slow and steady and now we get to enjoy the audience "getting" what we have been trying to say musically for so long. And the musicians around since we left, have been tremendous in growing what now stands on it's own 2 metallic feet, and continues to turn out great bands and albums. We are proud to have made music that lasted, and mattered for all of this time, you certainly cannot buy that shit. We are humbled and grateful, and excited for the future, and where we can all go next!
SoT: There are plenty of raucous & complex mashers on the new CD-what are some of your favorites on the album?
Kelly: Well oddly, I tend to listen to it as a whole, it has so many twist and turns that it has not bored me just yet..Second to Sun, and Live and Live Again is special for me, because just under 2 years ago I met my son Timmy St. John, who was put up for adoption before he was even born. 17 years later, he found me, and we have been very close since. He played the cello intro to that, and...well that's a great gift to me. Faux King Christ is a VERY strange tune, when i wrote the guitar stuff, it could have gone in a number of different directions, in this song, it is clear as a bell why the collab between me and flynn is a great one. He just turns those riffs into a completely different statement then I had intended. I love that. His playing is BEASTLY on Jupiter.
SoT: When it comes to Atheist, most people talk about the musicianship, but there's no doubt some interesting lyrical imagery going on during Jupiter. Can you talk about some of the lyrics to these new songs and where you go inspiration from?
Kelly: I typically write straight from the top of my head..I had one song title Faux King Christ, and that was the only pre-determined title. The rest just brought me through the doorways to the things that make me angry enough to write music to go underneath it all really. From Evolution, to my plea for the Pope to be arrested if he steps foot on American soil. He should be for his role in the molestation inside the catholic church. Anyone who knows me knows there is little in life I dont have an opinion on..so finding rants in my head has always been an easy channel to tune in to for me. I do think it's an important part of understanding Atheist, the lyrics really contrast the music, that they are oxymorons of one another, and that is much like a roller coaster ride that pushes you back, and then throws you forward at the same time.The lyrics are hopefull while the music is complex and dark..this makes for great art in my world! These are the things that I seek in my music, and music I enjoy listening to
SoT: What are your touring plans for the new album?
Kelly: We have plans to tour as much as we can, keep in mind we will not be doing 280 shows this year, so if we come to town, it might be the only time we come through because we have a lot of untapped territories that we want to get to. So get off your asses and come enjoy an evening with the only group of people that love metal more than you! Atheist!
SoT: Lastly, do you keep track of what other Florida death metal trailblazers, such as Obituary, Cynic, and Morbid Angel are up these days?
Kelly: Yeah we see many of these guys in hotel lobbies across the globe (laughs) but we rarely get to hang out for any length of time because during festival season in Europe, it's like we play, and then we are hauling ass on a bus or an airplane to the next place, and so if we do not play on the same day as say..cynic, then we just sort of see them in passing. But me and paul talk on the phone often. We have not seen the tardy boys since 07, and Pete, and David from M.A is usually always out at shows..so it's still a good vibe in Tampa.
Photos Courtesy of the Atheist Website
(Click here to read our reviews of Jupiter)